Musings on Lincoln film

I saw Lincoln over the weekend and considering a host of friends have been curious of my opinion, I thought I’d take a few minutes to write up something.

I must enter in a disclaimer that this is filled with spoilers. I urge you to not read it yet if you want the element of surprise which I think is a good thing for this film. Then come back and read and comment.

First, I’ll deal with some of the details of costuming and other material culture. Secondly, I’ll deal with some of the stories shown on the big screen and what that may mean in the midst of the 150th commemoration of the Civil War.

Overall, I have to say I was impressed with costuming in this film. For fear of being accused of copyright violations, I will not repost images that can be found with some web searching. Yes, there were some details in the clothing that could have been improved such as: better fitting frock coats, thinner cravats on more people, more collars that lay down versus the high standing collars on men, there definitely was a lack of white collars on all the female characters, and in some cases better bonnets.

However, I was generally impressed that I finally didn’t see women with loose hair except in getting ready for bed and that when out and about most of the women had bonnets on (not hats or nothing). I was pleased that they even got Tommy Lee Jones to wear a wig in his portrayal of House of Representatives member, Thaddeus Stevens. Representative Stevens’ wig is on display among other items at Gettysburg College’s Musselman Library. The reproduction of a dress Mary Lincoln wore I thought was pretty amazing except that it needed to be even lower cut in the bodice.  There was even one dress worn by Gloria Reuben portraying Elizabeth Keckly that illustrated a nod to a photo taken of Mrs. Keckly during the Civil War . So while the costuming isn’t perfect it’s a far cry better than 99% of movies made about the Civil War period.

Equally impressive to me was the work that went into the sets. I have an affinity for historical lighting technology and objects which is why I was excited by the appearance of gas lights on streets, in the White House, and other places. There were also beautiful camphene lamps that I spotted a couple of times. Chairs were generally right though I spotted perhaps two that seemed circa 1880-1890s to me (and considering I have a collection of 3 armchairs, 10 side chairs, and one slipper chair dating circa 1830-1865 and a circa 1840 sofa and a circa 1860 sofa, I do know a thing or two about historic seating). I did see that they had in one scene part of the Lincoln (first term) china which is reproduced now (as is the second term which arrived in February 1865).

On to the more important matter regarding the telling of the Lincoln story. There are certainly things that didn’t happen, such as Lincoln leaving his gloves at home the fateful night of April 14, 1865. He was wearing gloves at Ford’s Theater and you can see them here in a detailed photograph. I also would have chosen a different first name for one of the wounded men that Lincoln shakes hands with (in a preliminary search I have only found two United States soldiers during the Civil War whose first name was Kevin). There has been much ado from various scholars about this film not illustrating the drastic means to which enslaved people escaped from bondage to areas behind Union lines or arguments from those who publicly pushed for emancipation for decades (link to that is here). Some have even thought about why Frederick Douglass was not included in the film but the simple answer is Douglass did not meet with Lincoln during the time period portrayed in this film pushing for the 13th Amendment.

I thought an effective way of getting to the multiple dimensions of the Black Civil War experience occurred in the conversation between Lincoln and two US Colored soldiers near the beginning of the film. One of the men is obviously glad to see the President and offers his appreciation for the Emancipation Proclamation. The other black soldier is appreciative but was obviously literate, possibly born free, and challenged the President on various issues including the subject of black officers and equal pay. While Hari Jones has covered some of the inaccuracies of the pay issue, I do think that for some literate and free-born blacks in particular, the issue of not having more black officers was particularly bothersome even though there were some (mostly chaplains and medical staff). What came across the screen in the conversation was that there is no one narrative of what the Civil War meant within the Black community and that there was tension between recently freed people and those who were born free or whom had managed to become literate and demanding of more rights in the aftermath of the war’s savagery. I was pleased that the scene involved people who were not in the 54th Massachusetts and conversations have been occurring about the mostly obscure Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry, Arkansas.

Photograph taken at Brady Studio in Washington, D.C. This dress’ fabric is reproduced in the Lincoln film. Photograph in the collection of the Library of Congress.

While most people were excited to see Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln (and I thought he did a great job and looked like the man), I was particularly excited to see Sally Field as Mary Lincoln. I have long felt some sort of emotional attachment to Mrs. Lincoln. The stress of losing her mother when she was seven years old, her half-siblings becoming more favorite in her eyes than herself, and her adult stress of losing three children and her husband have always made me challenge people who think of her as an insane woman who should be laughed at or made a mockery of instead of realizing that all of the things which happened to her could happen to any of us. Sally Field (and I am biased because I think she’s amazing) nailed it! Yes, you see some of Mrs. Lincoln’s mental instability but you can understand it more in this portrayal. The scenes with moments where Lincoln tells her of his dreams and her being agitated as to what may happen, previous worries about assassination, her reoccurring headaches following a carriage accident in 1863, and touchingly her reentry into the bedroom where their son, Willie died in 1862, made her more realistic than the popular image of her as some laughable lunatic. The most intense moment with her certainly came when Field and Day-Lewis had a private argument regarding Robert’s enlistment, Willie’s death, and their relationship. I think the argument coupled with another scene featuring a loud slap in the face from the President to his son, Robert, challenges viewers with a preconceived notion of Mrs. Lincoln being a lunatic and President Lincoln being an angel to consider that President Lincoln may not have been easy to live with either. That argument is sure to nab Sally Field award nominations and I hope victory!

Photograph taken by Alexander Gardner, February 5, 1865. Image in the collection of the Library of Congress.

I was touched by the portrayal of the relationship between Lincoln and his youngest, Tad in contrast with the fraught relationship the President had with Robert. I have read in some buzzing about the movie that some people wished the last scene was Lincoln walking out of the White House to go to Ford’s Theater. I disagree. In fact, when Lincoln left I felt like it negated the conversation with the soldiers (white and black) in the beginning of the movie. In that conversation, Lincoln seemed to be uncomfortable with people reciting to him his Gettysburg Address (I am curious how many people at the time would have been able to versus in the aftermath of Lincoln’s death). Yet, the walking out of the White House to go to Ford’s Theater made it seem like Lincoln was in the process of being deified as though the people there knew he wasn’t going to come back alive. Therefore, I appreciated that in this film we saw a different perspective, that of young Tad. The boy was watching Aladdin at Grover Theater the same night his parents went to see a comedy. So you’re taken into the magic of nineteenth century theater and how exciting that must have been for a 12 year old. Then the terrible moment of the news arrives and poor Tad is seen clinging to his own box seating in grief. I felt like this had twice the impact when it appeared just a few moments separated from a scene of Mrs. Lincoln being held up by people and then fading to the death room of the Petersen house where you see Robert beside his father.

Secretary of State William Seward possessed a record of anti-slavery rhetoric but his vehement denouncing of slavery was seen by some as an instigator toward conflict in his “Irrepressible Conflict” speech in 1858. He thought he would be the clear Republican nominee in 1860 but lost out to the moderate Lincoln. His wartime service on Lincoln’s cabinet would move him from an adversary to someone who grew to respect Lincoln. Image in the collection of the Library of Congress.

Moving away from the Lincoln clan, I felt like Secretary of State William H. Seward and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton were not given their due as passionate people. Seward and Stanton were both a little full of themselves but they did by 1864-1865 respect Lincoln. I didn’t feel like Seward’s long standing anti-slavery feelings were adequately represented in the film. Seward’s outward anti-slavery stance was one reason he wasn’t nominated to be the Republican candidate in the 1860 election. I am, however, willing to say that he and Stanton’s relationship with the President was more complex than 2.5 hours allow. And with that I will give a nod to Eric Foner’s critique. Seward is a part of the long history of the movement to abolish slavery and I just felt like Seward read at moments as “Well, we can just wait till March and then the Republicans will have the House of Representatives and it’ll pass!”

I was shocked by a few things not being included like Lincoln’s last trip to City Point in late March to early April 1865. The conversation he had there with Lt. General Ulysses Grant, Major General William Sherman, and Admiral David Porter were crucial to Lincoln’s goal of letting the Confederates down as easy as possible and were enacted at Appomattox Court House and beyond. Secondly, I was surprised that the house where Grant met Lincoln in Petersburg on April 3, 1865 was not better portrayed in the film. Nitpicky you say? Well, considering the house IS still standing in Petersburg, it was not a difficult thing to reproduce even if it may have been impossible to film on location. Equally, I was surprised that there was no scene of Lincoln entering Richmond on April 4, 1865. It is very rare that a sitting leader would enter the former capital of an area that was in rebellion just one day after the sitting leader’s forces occupied it.

For a little play and just for the sake of it, I will throw out a few things of what I wish had been featured more (but hey, it was 2.5 hours and that’s all the time they had):

  • More about the Seward and Stanton relationship with Lincoln
  • I was seriously bummed that there was no representation of Chief Justice and former Secretary of Treasury Salmon Chase, principally because he’s one of my favorite anti-slavery and equal rights people from the time frame
  • More representation of Lydia Smith, the “housekeeper” for Thaddeus Stevens.
  • In the scene where Tad asks Elizabeth Keckly about slavery, I wish there had been a moment for Keckly to stop in her tracks and have a quick flashback to her trials in bondage (her whipping at age 4 and again later and the horrifying time she was raped) and to have been broken from the sequence by Lincoln telling Tad to move on from that topic and then for Keckly to say basically what she said in the film. It would have also made more poignant the conversation she had later with Lincoln about her son. In fact, I think she clearly should have said something about her son’s white appearance which allowed him to serve in a white regiment in Missouri in that conversation with the President.

However, overall, I am happy with the Lincoln film. I believe that most Americans do not watch C-Span 3 on weekends to catch up on the latest in the world of 150th anniversary commemorations of the Civil War. For many people the publicizing of places such as Petersburg, Virginia and Appomattox Courthouse may be an incentive for them to travel to go see these places in an effort to get more of the story of not only Lincoln’s time there but that of soldiers and civilians, black, white, immigrant, or native-born. The scenes within the movie can inspire conversations from people curious about the accuracy of events or simply just what event is being portrayed, and very importantly, I hope that in the midst of this 150th anniversary commemoration that the American public and those of us working at historic sites, battlefields, homes, etc. will develop conversations about the meanings and impacts of enslavement, emancipation, leadership, and freedom.



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9 responses to “Musings on Lincoln film

  1. Lindsay

    I felt like the moment with Lydia Smith at the end undermined Stevens’ life-long commitment to equality. I think a lot of people left the theater thinking, oh, that’s why he supported it, because he’s sleeping with his black housekeeper. It also didn’t give her much credit for being a really smart, savvy, successful businesswoman.

    • Lindsay,

      I agree that the film only alludes to Rep. Stevens’ life-long work as an equality man. I would be in favor of having a Stevens’ mini-series. That would help push him along the whole course of his work through the 14th Amendment work.

  2. Barbara Burkham

    My husband and I returned recently from several months on the road visiting civil war sites including the battlefields, cemeteries and UGR stops plus multiple presidential homes. Unfortunately we missed Petersburg.

    So naturally we were excited about the movie and then your review is spot on. I was wondering about the brocade robe Seward wears in the film. We had visitednthe Seward home in Auburn and think I recall a similar robe there. What is your thoughts? Thank you

    • Ms. Burkham,

      Thanks for your comment! I also was curious about Seward’s brocaded wrapping gown/banyan (old term). I am going to e-mail the Seward House to see if such an original for Seward survives. Thanks for reminding me of that and I will let you know what I hear.

    • Mrs. Burkham,

      I heard back from the collections manager at the Seward house. They do not have any surviving dressing gowns of Secretary of State Seward in their collection.

      My own thoughts then in light of them not reproducing an original garment was that a woven woolen cloth in some bright color would have been fine. If memory serves me it looked as if the one in the film was made of a brocade. Of the original men’s lounge wear I’ve seen, I’ve seen wool (usually light weight).

  3. Nancy

    I read Team of Rivals, and “Lincoln” was true to the book. Speilberg did such a good job, I felt like a fly on a wall, witnessing history. I have long since stopped demanding accuracy from movies. The purpose of a movie is to entertain, and maybe, just maybe you can take home a little bit of education. It really wasn’t important to the plot that a few wrong chairs were there, or that Sally Field did not have more cleave age.
    when I want accuracy, I look for a documentary.

  4. Todd Berkoff

    Good critique. I thought the actor who played Grant was completely miscast. Grant was 38 in 1865—the actor who played him was way too old. And that scene of Lincoln riding his horse through some battlefield presumably outside of Petersburg was for shock value only. Maybe Fort Gregg looked like that with all the bodies strewn about, but Lincoln never traveled west of Petersburg. As you indicated, Spielberg should have showed the very powerful scene of a victorious Lincoln walking through the streets of Richmond on April 4th–guarded only by a small detail of sailors–being greeted by black citizens kneeling at his feet, then proceeding to the Confederate White House to sit in Jeff Davis’s chair. THAT would have been a powerful scene! What a waste.

  5. Thomas

    You said “I thought an effective way of getting to the multiple dimensions of the Black Civil War experience occurred in the conversation between Lincoln and two US Colored soldiers near the beginning of the film. One of the men is obviously glad to see the President and offers his appreciation for the Emancipation Proclamation. The other black soldier is appreciative but was obviously literate, possibly born free, and challenged the President on various issues including the subject of black officers and equal pay. ”

    The title of this film was “Lincoln” not “Lincoln and the Black Civil War Experience”. The first scene in the film was a fantasy. The Gettysburg address wasn’t really sanctified until after his death. The portrayal of a Black who had absolutely no regional accent is misrepresentative. The portrayal of soldiers talking to the president and even challenging his ideas, not in the presence of their commanders, is a farce. Boiling the story of Lincoln down to 2 hours does NOT include this scene. However, if the purpose of the movie was to touch on certain “chords” in order to sell certain political ideas to 21st century information-challenged people by carnivalizing a legend while warping history, it succeeds.

  6. Max Koss

    Yes, Thomas, the first scene was fantasy. But this is a movie. And I thought it set the stage quite well for the rest of the movie. If you want complete reality, including regional accents, perhaps you would be better off watching a different movie (I have no suggestions unfortunately) or something on another channel.

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